Poetry Workshops in Ukraine

In 2017 I traveled to Eastern Ukraine to meet with poets in Kiev celebrating the four year anniversary of the Maidan protests and then I went on to Eastern Ukraine to meet with human rights activists and do poetry workshops. Ukraine continues to struggle with building its democracy and fighting corruption while fighting a war with Russia. While I was there bombing and shelling from Russia continued against the Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias were targeting Tartars who have lived for centuries in Eastern Ukraine. Russia continues to foment unrest with disinformation campaigns aimed at strengthening fascism and antisemitism among some disaffected Ukrainians and supports criminal networks of sex and drug trafficking in the country. The majority of the Ukrainian people want a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Ukraine which is democratic and tied to the EU.

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Cuvaj se will partner with any organization that seeks to strengthen human rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and democracy in the region or who supports writers in any language or ethnicity in Ukraine who believe in equality, justice and human rights and is anti-fascist at its core.

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“Poetry is about liberation. It’s about imaginative freedom, deep emotional experience, and it’s a liberating force.”

—Arthur Sze, Academy of American Poets Chancellor (2012– )

 

Students of all ages from around Eastern Ukraine met in Zaporozhye to write and share poetry with one another. The group was so open-hearted and kind and there was a really special feeling of community and solidarity among the group. We looked at and read aloud poems by American Poets, Joy Harjo and WS Merwin, as well as Polish poets, Wislawa Szmborska and Czeslaw Milosz, Bosnian poet, Goran Simic, and Maidan Ukrainian poet,  Serhiy Zhadan. We then practiced some of the craft techniques we found in the work, repetition, image, metaphor, and symbolism.

 

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TAKE ONLY WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT

by Serhiy Zhadan, 2015

Take only what is most important. Take the letters.

Take only what you can carry.

Take the icons and the embroidery, take the silver,

Take the wooden crucifix and the golden replicas.

Take some bread, the vegetables from the garden, then leave.

We will never return again.

We will never see our city again.

Take the letters, all of them, every last piece of bad news.

We will never see our corner store again.

We will never drink from that dry well again.

We will never see familiar faces again.

We are refugees. We’ll run all night.

We will run past fields of sunflowers.

We will run from dogs, rest with cows.

We’ll scoop up water with our bare hands,

sit waiting in camps, annoying the dragons of war.

You will not return and friends will never come back.

There will be no smoky kitchens, no usual jobs,

There will be no dreamy lights in sleepy towns,

no green valleys, no suburban wastelands.

The sun will be a smudge on the window of a cheap train,

rushing past cholera pits covered with lime.

There will be blood on your heels,

tired guards on borderlands covered with snow,

a postman with empty bags shot down,

a priest with a hapless smile hung by his ribs,

the quiet of a cemetery, the noise of a command post,

and unedited lists of the dead,

so long that there won’t be time

to check them for your own name.

translated from the Ukrainian

by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps